The year was 1975, and the new BMW 3-series automobile was coming to the USA. Really an upright two-door sedan, that car put BMW on the map in the United States while debuting a theme that still exists today — “The Ultimate Driving Machine.”
Today, BMW is America’s second most popular luxury car marquee, behind only Mercedes. While the 3-series car remains the brand’s bread-and-butter product worldwide, crossovers are sweeping through the ranks. And most of BMW’s crossovers (X1, new X2, X3, X4, X5, X6 and pending X7) are built at the brand’s largest production facility in Spartanburg, S.C.
The third-generation X3 further distills the effort created by BMW’s first “activity vehicle,” the midsize X5 that debuted in 1999. Honing both the chassis and the powertrains, while adding the internal features and safety aids popular in today’s market, this new X3 is a much more polished crossover than either of its two predecessors. Ride dynamics, steering feel and on-road composure are closer to the company’s vaunted cars than ever before, giving this crossover more sport utility bragging rights than several competitors.
All versions of the X3 come standard with all-wheel drive and an eight-speed automatic transmission. Our Dark Olive Metallic sample 30i used the base 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making 248 hp here, while the 40i model features the 3.0-liter in-line turbocharged six-cylinder making a robust 355-hp.
Most drivers will never be able to tell what is under the hood. Throttle response is quick, strong and quiet at most throttle settings. Realized fuel economy for over 900 wintry miles was over 26 mpg against an EPA estimate of 22/29/25 mpg with both a seamless shifting transmission and a transparent, always active AWD system that still relays a rear-drive emphasis. A turbo-diesel will be available by summer.
Let it also be noted that the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is now the standard-bearer powerplant spreading through the industry. More automakers have a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine than do not.
The latest X3 is also 2.2 inches longer between the wheels, space that increases ride compliance as well as rear seat room. Passengers will find a comfortable seat with good head room, yet the rear seating area lacks the knee and leg room offered in a Chevy Equinox or Honda CR-V — which BMW buyers are probably not cross-shopping.
The X3’s closest competitor is Audi’s Q5, a rival with almost identical dimensions, similar power and price as well as performance.
Besides a tight turning radius, heated steering wheel and a triple-zone climate system that allows each front occupant to select which air vents they want controlled air to exit from, the X3 features a familiar dash layout utilizing the I-drive central “mouse” control, plus menu buttons for reasonably crisp, accurate choices on a wide, color screen resting high on the center dash. It would be great that the next phase of dual-zone climate systems allowed users to select different temperatures for the various air vents, as many occupants complain of cold feet on winter days when the sun warms the upper cabin.
Standard equipment on the X3 is a lengthy list of features: driving dynamics control (four modes), shifter paddles, hill descent control, ventilated disc brakes with numerous electronic assists, 10-way adjustable front seats, real wood trim, split-folding rear seat with cargo-area release levers, multifunction steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers and much more for $42,450. Yet, as BMW customarily has done, popular options are nestled in expensive option packages with features you may not want. A rear-view camera is part of a parking assist package, $1,300. Sirius/XM is part of a $2,850 convenience package, while a heated steering wheel is included on the $3,300 premium package along with front and rear heated seats, navigation system, and heads-up display. Real leather seating is a $1,700 option too.
With an as-shown price of $57,620, the X3 30i is the same price as the larger X5, which might explain why the X5 continues to be the brand’s top-selling crossover in America. Lacking both remote starting and dynamic cruise among its driving aids, the X3 could become even pricier as buyers survey the lengthy list of available equipment or opt for the more-powerful, much faster 40i model.
No one ever said that the “Ultimate Driving Machine” would be as affordable as a RAV4 or Outback. And no one in 1975 expected our driving fleet to morph from sedans to five-door crossovers that are faster, more capable and more functional.